In January 2021 I celebrated my 25th consecutive year serving as a Senior / Lead Pastor in a local church. Over that time, I have concluded that we pastors are often our own worst enemy. Before you click away to another article, let me explain. So much of what we do as pastors is convictional by nature. We study God’s Word, we prepare sermons from God’s Word, we live in a world that is filled with absolutes and non-negotiables. As a result, it is easy for us to allow that mindset to infiltrate other parts of ministry that are not, by nature, absolute or nonnegotiable. COVID taught me an important lesson in that regard.
When the pandemic broke into our lives in mid-March of 2020, I was confident that our church would take a brief “pause” to allow the scientists and epidemiologists to figure out a treatment and then we would return to “normal.” I was comfortable with “two weeks to flatten the curve.” Well, as two weeks has turned into two months, and then six months, and now nearly fourteen months, I have learned several invaluable lessons, including this one: the way people respond to risk is different, and that’s ok.
I had never really considered the concept of “risk management” as an essential lesson for church leadership. Oh, maybe in some vague way I thought about it with regards to finances or major change, but I had not considered how a person’s response to an outside issue (i.e. COVID) would affect my opinion of them. Yet, as person after person reached out to me in the earliest days of the pandemic with widely varying responses to what was going on, I found myself “judging” them on their response. If they were responding more like I was, I thought they were very reasonable (surprise, surprise!). But, if they were more fearful or cautious, I found myself becoming critical. Not necessarily to the person, but in my heart.
For a pastor, that is a dangerous thing. Prov 4:23 tells us to “guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life.” When a pastor allows his heart to become hardened or embittered toward a person he is to serve as a faithful shepherd, no good can come of it. Indeed, ministry can be derailed by it. When Jesus reinstated Peter in John 21, he called Peter to “feed” and to “shepherd” Jesus’ sheep. In order to be faithful to the task of shepherding Jesus’ sheep well, we have to guard our hearts from becoming hard toward them. When it came to people’s responses to COVID, that was proving a challenge for me.
In order to wrestle through that challenge, I found help from an unlikely source: motorcycle training. In my “spare time” I am a Motorcycle Safety Foundation Rider Coach. That means I teach people to ride a motorcycle that have never ridden one before. One of the things we emphasize in our early training is risk management. Riding a motorcycle comes with inherent risks, and to minimize those risks, one of the things we have to know is our own level of “risk tolerance.”
While teaching a riding class during the pandemic, it occurred to me that I needed to apply this training to the folks I was trying to ministry to in the church, that each one of them has their own unique “risk tolerance” when it comes to COVID. Some may have a compromised immune system, others may have family members who are compromised, while yet others may simply be prone to overreaction about things they cannot “control.” Whatever the case may be, I had to learn not to judge people for having a different tolerance for risk than I do.
Frankly, that has been immensely helpful in beating back my criticism of others, and it has increased my ability to shepherd them more faithfully. Rather than viewing every reaction to COVID that differed from my own as “wrong,” I began to ask questions about why people felt the way they did. Most of the time feelings had little to do with anything convictional. In other words, they were not verbalizing that they no longer believed God was in control, for example. Rather, it was almost always something “negotiable.” In that context, I was able to empathize with their fear (or concern or pain) and then, comfort them by pointing them to the true Source of their strength: a sovereign God who loved them dearly and considers them the “apple of his eye” (Ps 17:8).